Submitted by Samuel Rae as part of our contributors program.
A Closer Look At Some Of The Leading Commercial Drone Technologies
In February this year, a Business Insider Intelligence report suggested that the global drone industry could be worth just shy of $12 billion annually by 2023, and that over the next 10 years, global spending on aerial drones will amount to a cumulative $98 billion. The report also points out that 12% of this $98 billion, or approximately $11.5 billion, will come from the commercial arm of the drone industry. Companies of all sizes recognize this potential and are rushing to stake a claim in the space. This focus has drawn the attention of the retail investment community, and large numbers of investors are trying to decide to which company they should allocate the capital and gain exposure. An important factor in this decision — and one that many are overlooking — is the product itself. All unmanned aerial vehicles (“UAVs”) are different, so here’s a look at four of the players looking to seek market share and the leading offering in the small commercial UAV category.
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Lockheed Martin Corporation (LMT)
First is Lockheed Martin. A company that is better known for its activity in the military space, Lockheed announced in May this year that it was preparing to unveil three new small UAV systems. The first two of these systems are to be Indago vertical takeoff and landing (“VTOL”) quad rotor UAVs, controlled through a handheld control system. The technology uses the Kestrel autopilot system — a system well known in the military drone space currently used on more than 60 aircraft. Weighing in at a little over 5 pounds, and spanning 32 inches front to back and side to side, Lockheed’s offering is relatively compact, man-packable and can be folded to a size around one third of its flight size. One of the downsides of the Indago technology however, is its endurance and range. This is a common problem across the drone space at present (and one that the company addressed further into this piece looks to have overcome), and is something that many investors and industry analysts are overlooking when forming their opinions as to the near term future of the sector. The Indago system is capable of travelling approximately 5 km over a 40 to 50 minute period assuming a 180 g payload, with the payload — in most cases — some form of camera or other surveillance technology. As this piece highlights, these endurance statistics are common across the space, and until they improve, the commercial application of small UAVs is relatively limited. The well-documented Jeff Bezos promotion earlier this year suggesting that Amazon will soon be using drones to deliver small parcels remains unrealistic for example, limited by the 5 km range of the vehicles. Having said this, some applications such as disaster relief or search and rescue missions are realistic at current specifications, and are spaces in which Lockheed is likely to focus as the nascent industry starts to mature.
AeroVironment, Inc. (AVAV)
Unlike Lockheed, AeroVironment is a company that focuses solely on the design development production and operation of UAVs. The company hit the headlines recently as it became the manufacturer of the first ever drone to receive overland certification by the FAA. BP (BP) uses the technology over its Alaskan oilfields to monitor environmental factors and map the landscape. The technology in question — Puma AE — is not the one addressed in this article, However, it is its size and specifications do not compare to the Lockheed offering above. Instead, this article will look at AeroVironment’s Micro UAV — the WASP AE. The WASP is an all environment UAV specifically designed for the commercial market. It differs from the Indago in that it has wings (as opposed to the quad copter design) and can be hand launched and land on water. It can be operated manually programmed for autonomous operation, just as can the Indago. At 2.85 pounds it is much lighter than the Indago, but it has a larger wingspan of 40 inches and is approximately 30 inches in length. Projected commercial applications similar to those mentioned earlier, and are yet again limited by the endurance specifications. The WASP can operate at 500 feet — slightly higher than the Indago — but its range is just 5 km and endurance 50 minutes.
Drone Aviation Holding Corp. (DRNE)
The final addition to this list is Drone Aviation. As mentioned earlier, this company’s approach could be the solution to the range and endurance specifications troubles that limit the commercial potential of the offerings of both Lockheed and AeroVironment at present. Drone Aviation’s offering in the space is the BOLT UAV. Just as is the Indago, the BOLT technology is a quad rotor UAV, launched vertically and controlled via a handheld platform. The BOLT differs from its peers, however, in that it is tethered to a ground-based console. There are two primary benefits of this tethering. The first is that it allows the technology to bypass FAA regulations surrounding UAVs. It is currently illegal for commercial entities without a special license (such as that held by BP) in US airspace. The FAA have been instructed to draft regulations by September next year, but analysts expect considerable delays and it could realistically be two to three years before commercial drones can legally and regularly takeoff and land in the US. Drone Aviation’s small UAV therefore is likely to be a popular option over the coming two years. The second advantage, and the one that fits more with the theme of this article, is the specification benefits that the tethering affords the drone. The BOLT technology as an operational altitude of up to 1000 feet — more than double that of the other two options — and can stay in the air for up to 18 hours. For applications such as crowd monitoring or data relay, the ability to remain airborne for nearly 20 times the of its competitors, should give the BOLT UAV and Drone Aviation a considerable advantage in the space.
These are just three of the current offerings and there are a large number of companies developing their own UAVs for commercial use. They illustrate however, the range of technologies and capabilities currently being developed and sold in this nascent industry. In turn, they illustrate the advantages and disadvantages associated with each type of technology, and the problems faced by manufacturers and drone users at present.